Phantastic Beginnings

Cassandra Ramos

I'm something of a late RPG bloomer. While most people my age started with something on the SNES, I was unfortunate to have not owned the console at the time. Indeed, my first video game platform was a Game Boy Pocket at the age of nine. For a few years, all I played for the handheld were platformers and the occasional puzzle game. At the age of eleven, I finally played my first RPG: Pokémon Red, which was a birthday gift, having first discovered the franchise via the anime series. I absolutely loved the game, and I remain a fan of the main series to this day. It was so very different from the games I used to play, and yet for some reason, it did not spark an interest in RPGs. Indeed, I had no idea it was an RPG, and hadn't heard the term 'RPG' until years later. I did play Pokémon Gold/Crystal and even Paper Mario for the N64, all of which I loved, but I still didn't know they were called RPGs, and no interest in the genre followed.

That all changed in early 2003 at the age of fourteen or so. Months before, still 2002, I had picked up a free promo DVD at a local GameStop featuring new and upcoming (at the time) games for the GBA and Nintendo Game Cube. Among the commercials for Animal Crossing and trailer for The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, was a trailer for Phantasy Star Online: Episode I & II. I had seen the title before in video game magazines, but never really took note of it except for thinking "what a weird way to spell 'fantasy.'" I was not prepared for how much of an impression that trailer would leave on me. The first thing that caught and gripped my interest was the music that played. It was an actual vocal song, sung in a very pretty voice, which I would later learn was the ending theme to Episode I, 'Can Still See the Light.' Coupled with this song were visuals of lush forests and beautiful beaches, as well as clips of battles against monsters, including a final clip of a massive roaring beast that looked like a horned griffin. I knew next to nothing about the game itself, but I had to have it.

I managed to learn a little bit about Phantasy Star Online from the internet and Nintendo Power magazine. This was how I found out about RPGs, and that both Pokémon and Paper Mario were of this genre. How did I not see it sooner? Both Pokémon and Paper Mario had characters that got stronger through level-ups, points that are gained after defeating enemies that made characters level-up after they accumulated a certain amount, currency to buy items with, turn-based battle systems and a variety of moves for each character to use. Heck, the Toad houses where Mario could heal at were like Pokémon centers.

When I finally did get the chance to play Phantasy Star Online, I discovered that it was a pretty different animal from both RPGs that I previously played. The biggest departure was that the battles were not turn-based, but in real time. I could move my character, I had to avoid monster attacks, and I had to time the button presses to strike with my weapon or use a Technique. I soon got to enjoy this action system very much, having to maneuver about and time my strikes. There was also the involved character creation system: I had three major class groups to choose from and then from there choose a more specific class based on gender and race. And of course, I could give my character just about any hair color I wanted, and choose from a variety of costume colors, hair styles, face-types and skin-tones.

This simple, but engaging battle system, the fun of finding new weapons, armors, and units to increase my stats, and music that I had come to really enjoy was enough to make me pour hundreds of hours into the game. Even Phantasy Star Online's story aided, despite being kind of vague. It requires quite a bit of piecing together via messages left behind by certain characters and Hunter's Guild Quest, but I still greatly enjoyed it. While I don't particularly have a preference for this piecing-together form of story-telling, it is a nice change of pace from the more straight-forward story-telling I would more often encounter afterwards. While I oddly never played the game online, I did often play with friends or my younger sister, which really helped its longevity and my opinion of it. I thought it to be such an incredible game, that I wanted to experience more like it. Knowing that I enjoyed other RPGs, I wanted to try out more of them. Maybe I couldn't find other single and multiplayer games, with real-time battle systems and lots of loot to be had, but I could find games where I could make my characters stronger by defeating enemies, and experience plenty of other stories. Among the next games I would play would be the classic Phantasy Star games, in a handy collection for the GBA. Despite my age and the fancy modern graphics I had gotten used to, I enjoyed the 8-bit original Phantasy Star, got to love Phantasy Star II and even found Phantasy Star III to be fun. While my hope was to shed light on the story of Phantasy Star Online (all it did was introduce me to a number of crazy theories as to how they might connect), I discovered I could enjoy classic RPGs just as much as I could more contemporary ones. My new addiction would only increase from there.

I don't play Phantasy Star Online much nowadays. I find the hack-and-slash battle system to be somewhat dated and played so much of it, I don't feel the need to do so anymore, but what it did to my tastes in gaming is indeed profound. It blew me away before I played it, and entranced me when I finally got the chance to do so. It introduced me to real-time battle systems, multiplayer RPGs, and intriguing storylines, however vague it was. Most importantly, it showed me that, yes, I love this genre. I love it and wanted to play more of it. As Phantasy Star Online was truly my gateway into RPGs, I still hold it very dear to my heart.

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